Tufts v. Diversity: Affirmative Action on Trial

This Halloween, the greatest fright was a terrifying, bone-chilling pack of ghouls—the United States Supreme Court—receiving oral arguments for two cases poised to decimate the barest semblance of equity in college admissions across the nation: affirmative action. The most conservative Supreme Court bench in 90 years has had a marathon two years and this year it’s tackling some of its most controversial social-policy-oriented cases yet. In this case, lawyers from the organization Students for Fair Admissions presented their case for why affirmative action—the use of race as a factor in college admissions—is a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Tufts joined 32 other colleges and universities in submitting amicus briefs in support of our neighboring university down the red line, Harvard, and of affirmative action as a practice.

As oral arguments began in Washington, D.C. this year, Tufts students received an email from the Office of the President titled, “Statement on Supreme Court Cases regarding College Admissions.” Tony Monaco wrote, “At Tufts, we celebrate diversity and recognize its power to enlighten, teach, and bridge differences. Indeed, it is foundational to our mission to provide transformative experiences for students, faculty, and staff in an inclusive and collaborative environment.” 

Obviously, this is a sentiment we can all get behind, generally speaking. But in the face of recent news about discrimination in the Tufts Admissions office, as well as the data available on the university’s “diversity dashboard,” these words ring hollow. For an institution such as Tufts—famously need-aware in their admissions—this case presents a moment for reflection: Do we accurately practice the principles of affirmative action?

The phrase affirmative action was first used by former President John F. Kennedy to describe a directive for federal agencies to intentionally and proactively diversify their employee base by ensuring applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This directive also established the Committee on Employment Opportunity. Following this, colleges began to implement this tactic of affirmatively assessing their admissions standards and structuring them to include race—and the impact of structural racism—in their assessment of prospective student applications.

The prime driver of the war on affirmative action is a conservative activist named Edward Blum, also famous for being a key architect in Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 SCOTUS case that decimated the Voting Rights Act. Blum is the frontman of a vast network of far-right donors, litigants, and politicians. These two cases are Blum’s second attempt to end affirmative action, the first being the failed 2016 challenge Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in which Blum sought out and celebritized Abigail Fisher, a white Texan woman who claimed she was not accepted to UT Austin because her spot was claimed by someone benefiting from the university’s affirmative action policies (though she did not actually meet the benchmarks for automatic acceptance to the university as a graduate of Texas public schools). A common theme in anti-affirmative action cases is this phenomenon of imaginary white grievance—that if it were not for this policy, the spot would’ve been claimed by a white student. The 2022 cases make for a stunning example of multiculturalist white supremacy, a term coined by American Studies scholar Dylan Rodriguez. In these cases, the plaintiffs are non-white but still operate within the dynamics of American white supremacy, which has reconstructed whiteness around capital and proximity to racial dominance as opposed to purely the phenotype of the body. 

According to Tufts University’s own data, as of fall 2021, 47.9 percent of Tufts undergraduate students self-identified in their application materials as white, and 68.4 percent of Tufts faculty identified as white. Only 5.2 percent of undergraduates identified as Black or African American. Despite the implementation of and renewed support for affirmative action, Tufts’ own admissions statistics bring under scrutiny whether Tufts actively recruits, accepts, and represents diverse communities.   

Several articles from on-campus publications reveal that Tufts’ admissions diversity issue extends well beyond need-aware policy and insufficient aid grants. There is currently an ongoing investigation into Director of Admissions JT Duck for discriminatory practices against his employees in the admissions office. A September report revealed massive dysfunction, exclusionary practices, and failures of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice in the Provost’s office. The people in charge of making decisions about who gets to attend this institution are currently under investigation for racism and discrimination. How does that make for an “inclusive and collaborative environment?” 

The issues of racism and lack of commitment to diversity trickle down from the administration. A stunningly low 3.4 percent of Tufts faculty identified as Black or African American in fall 2021. A recent Observer article took a deep dive into the “mass exodus” of faculty of color from the university, driven away by a lack of financial resources and a “climate of hostility.” How can the university expect prospective students of color to feel confident about enrolling in this institution given these circumstances? 

As a white woman, this was not something I had to consider when I selected Tufts. When I visited campus before enrolling, I mostly saw faces that reflected my own. As a Jewish woman, I was doubly affirmed I’d be cared for on campus by Tufts’ vibrant and multi-faceted Jewish life, which included space for progressive, anti-occupation Judaism that had become integral to my religious practice in my teenage years. Now, as I watch the white ethno-nationalist takeover of the Supreme Court manifest itself in attacks on diversity on college campuses—led by a Jewish man—I feel dismay and anger that someone who claims to share my religious and cultural values would feel compelled to attack affirmative action. I can think of no better example of tikkun olam—healing the world—as a praxis than affirmative action: the intentional and proactive effort to mitigate the harm of systemic racism and historical exclusion by factoring in race in admissions to elite institutions. 

With all of the university-wide blatant failures to cultivate a diverse campus—evident in its lack of student and staff racial diversity and its inequitable need-influenced admissions practices with respect to financial aid—the question of whether or not Tufts truly practices principles of diversity feels inevitable. With the likely overturn of the practice impending, it is time for Tufts to reassess its admissions policies and potentially overhaul the whole process. In order for Tufts to be a truly anti-racist institution that cultivates sincere diversity and cultivates an “inclusive and collaborative environment,” a lot has to change.